The outrageous behaviors portrayed on “Girls” often seem designed to generate controversy. Does Adam go too far when he admits that he fantasizes Hannah is an 11-year-old prostitute? Is Hannah accurately representing OCD sufferers when she repeatedly jams a Q-tip in her ear canal? But the Season Four finale on Sunday featured something so supposedly aberrant that everyone–viewers and characters alike–seems to agree that it’s crazy: a home birth.
The woman who opts to deliver a baby in a New York City apartment is Caroline, perhaps the most unhinged character on the show. She resists when a disparate cast of characters gathers to persuade her to get out of the bathtub and go to the hospital. “I am not going to distance myself from the beautiful and natural process that is birth by tubes and drugs and fucking white lab coats,” she insists. We’re meant to sympathize with Adam when he calls their birth plan “the dumbest idea that’s ever happened.” Most reviewers seem to agree: A critic for Yahoo! called their plan “harebrained.” A writer for Flavorwire took the opportunity to remind us that Caroline and her partner Laird “have always been weird and gross.”
Planning a home birth without a midwife or anyone trained in delivery is undeniably irresponsible. But the Girls’ writers are relying on another assumption as well: that delivering a baby at home is inherently irresponsible.
The question of whether home birth is as safe as hospital birth is–like many issues having to do with pregnancy (what’s safe to eat, can you have that glass of wine, whether to nurse or bottle feed)–hotly debated. But studies suggest that, at least under certain circumstances, home birth is perfectly safe. In 2012, a team of Dutch doctors analyzed data on nearly 150,000 births and found that among low-risk women, planned home births were actually safer than hospital deliveries. A 2011 study taking into account 65,000 births in Britain found that, while home births could be complicated for first-time mothers, they were no riskier than hospital births for second-time mothers. And in other parts of the world, home birth isn’t so unusual. In the Netherlands, about 20 percent of all babies are delivered at home.
Less than one percent of births in the U.S. take place at home, though that number may be rising: According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, home births increased by 59 percent between 2004 and 2012. But stereotypes persist. Alice Dreger–a scientist and professor who delivered her own babies at home–writes in The Atlantic, “When I ask my medical students to describe their image of a woman who elects to birth with a midwife rather than with an obstetrician, they generally describe a woman who wears long cotton skirts, braids her hair, eats only organic vegan food, does yoga, and maybe drives a VW microbus.”
In the episode, of course, Caroline’s birth plan goes terribly wrong. The baby is breech, and her companions force her to the hospital where she submits to modern medicine and gives birth to a healthy baby. Challenging cliches is usually one of Girls’ strengths, but this episode plays on the notion that home birth is dangerous and only deranged women would attempt it. Caroline may be crazy, but she’s not that far out of line this time.